Montana’s minstrel

By Doug Hare EBS Staff

Bozemanite Greg Keeler is a bit of a Renaissance man; poet, fiction writer, memoirist, musician, painter, playwright and fisherman are a few of the titles he could lay claim to.

Keeler taught in the English department at Montana State University for nearly four decades, and now holds emeritus status at the school where he had to fight to get tenure. He says that title sounds fancy for a guy who grew up in the flatlands of Oklahoma.

Keeler’s eighth collection of poetry, due to be released this May, is a mashup of 180 new sonnets entitled “The Bluebird Run.”

Crafting a sonnet is no easy task. English sonnets are a restrictive form, calling for 14 lines with an “ABAB CDCD EFEF GG” rhyme scheme and written in iambic pentameter—meaning that each line is ten syllables and has five “feet” that are “iambs,” alternating unstressed syllables with stressed syllables (duh-DUH, duh-DUH).

Here is one selection from “The Bluebird Run” (reprinted with permission from Elk River Books) that is insightful in the way it self-consciously describes the process of composing a sonnet.

I’m writing this because I want to show
my true love how I try to write a poem.
In this tradition accents always go
at five per line before I bring them home
into a rhyme which alternates except
the couplet, which wraps up the last two lines.
When followed strictly this gets too adept,
and one hears just the meter and the rhymes.
So sometimes I’ll put a bunch of unaccented syllables
around the strong ones just to make it sound
like a prosy chat in a form that seems unfulfillable
until the reader hears it read aloud.
And by the way that last rhyme’s called a slant.
It’s when I really want to rhyme but can’t.

The first few times I read a poem, I try not to analyze it all. I recommend letting the imagery conjure up what it may, getting a sense of the cadences and rhythms, and letting the poem make its impression upon your aesthetic sensibilities and personal memories.

Later on, some analysis might help illuminate how the poem achieves its effects, intended or not. When interpreting sonnets, it helps to think of the first two quatrains as the “octave” and the final six lines or “sestet” beginning with the “volta” or a ninth line that juxtaposes the theme or argument of the first eight lines.

Obviously, the octave in this poem describes the strict requirements of this form of verse. But note how the third quatrain breaks sharply with convention. The volta and the eleventh line disregard the pattern of iambic pentameter—both holding 15 syllables and having feet which read more like “prosy chat” than typical lines of a sonnet. The 10th and 12th line attempt to rhyme “sound” with “aloud.” And then the couplet offers a sort of resolution by returning to proper form.

For me, this ostensibly simple poem holds insight about how we are bound by traditions and rules, but also able to shape and transform them, finally gesturing at the beauty of imperfection and improvisation.

“The Bluebird Run” is chock full of memorable poems and Keeler’s range as a sonneteer is impressive. His gems include effervescent commentary on the mundane—say shopping at Costco—as well as irreverent, yet solemn odes about love and dying. This book should garner Keeler the recognition he deserves as one of the finest poets under the Big Sky.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.